Tips for Drawing Portraits in Colored Pencil

Tips for Drawing Portraits in Colored Pencil

Today, I’d like to share a tips for drawing portraits. Here’s the question.

I would like some tips on techniques for doing portraits; skin tones…eyes…lips.



Lynda asks a good question. Unfortunately, each of the examples she listed could be the start of a series of posts. Obviously beyond the scope of this post!

But I don’t do human portraits, so I asked a good friend and fellow artist, John Middick, how he would answer Lynda’s question.

Here’s John’s response.

Tips for Drawing Portraits

By John Middick

First off I commend you for your interest in drawing portraits in colored pencil. It’s my absolute favorite subject matter and colored pencil lends itself to rendering the kind of details we find in portraiture.

Keep in mind, each of these specific items are fairly broad and could be elaborated on in more detail individually.

But there are some good, general guidelines to follow that will help steer you in the right direction.

Skin Tones

First let’s talk about skin tones. I like to think of skin tones in a general sense, and then let the specific reference picture and lighting on the portrait dictate more specifically which colors I use. Even so there are some pretty standard “rules” that I like to follow.

I am not a fan of generic skin colors or charts. Instead, I like to split up the head into a few zones or regions.

So working our way down the face, these 3 regions are:

  1. Yellow for the Forehead – From the eyebrows to the hairline.
  2. Red (or pink) for the Cheeks – This area also includes the ears, nose and eyes.
  3. Gray or neutral for the Mouth – This area includes the chin, lower half of the cheeks, jaw and neck. But does not include the lips.

Now you may be thinking, “I don’t see all of those colors in these particular regions of the face”.

And yes, I would have to agree. Skin color won’t normally scream those colors. They are more subtle than that.

Skin color is typically a subdued variation of yellow, red, pink, brown, orange, and the list of colors could go on and on.

I like to simplify the skin of the person and ask what predominant hue (or local color) I’m looking at.

Samples from Portraits

These three portrait drawings have unique skin colors and demonstrate my point perfectly.

  1. “Alessandra” has mostly a pale yellowish skin color.
Tips for Drawing Portraits 1
  1. “Vanessa” has a predominantly red or pink skin color.
  1. “Lexie” has a very pale pink (nearly white) skin color.
Tips for Drawing Portraits

Notice in my portrait of Lexie, even though her skin is pale, she still has very dark red skin colors inside the shadows. The skin, like everything we draw, will never be only one color. The areas where light is reflected off the skin provide some information about this person’s skin color, but the shadows also describe an important part of the color story.

If we were to zoom in and look even closer at all the individual areas of the face we would start to see the three different regions represented in the colors described above.

But, let’s talk about some practical tips and techniques.

First, determine the lightest skin colors and the colored pencil(s) you’ll use to depict those tones. In Lexie I used a lot of Pink, White, and Burnt Ochre 10%.

Next, decide on the skin color in the shadows and lay those pencils aside. In this portrait I chose Dark Flesh and Dark Indigo to give me the color I was looking for.

Finally, settle on colors for middle values and the full chroma for each region of the face. For example, for the red color in Lexie I mostly used Alizarin Crimson and Hibiscus Pink for the red areas of the cheeks, ears, and nose.

Obviously, much more could be written about skin tones. Just keep it simple and observe the portrait in front of you. You’ll get better with practice.

The Eyes

Let’s talk for a moment about some techniques for drawing the eyes.

Tips for Drawing Portraits

Begin drawing the eyes by increasing the darkest areas first.

The eyelashes would be an exception to this rule. The reason to wait on drawing the eyelashes is due to the size of the lashes and because they cross over into lighter areas of skin.

The eyelashes in this close-up eye study was one of the last things I drew.

When drawing eyes, think about each individual texture and anatomical element you’re drawing. The orbital structure of the eye is overall a recessed area of the face. The visible part of the eyeball creates a raised area that catches more light.

Don’t let the complexity of the eyes scare you. Just dive in and draw them first when you start your next portrait. You’ll master drawing the eyes in no time.

The Lips

The skin of the lips is actually a part of the inside of the mouth, yet, they’re visible on the outside. So they appear typically more red or pink than the rest of the face.

The tendency for many is to draw the lips more red than they are in reality. A better approach is to use most of the skin colors that you’ve already used. Increase the amount of the pinks and reds that were used in the rest of the face only slightly in the lips.

Avoid a harsh line of pink or red to show where the lips start on the mouth, unless you’re drawing lipstick. Create a soft edge that makes it hard to tell where the lips actually begin.

Shade the top lip darker than the bottom, and the outer corners should be the darkest value overall.

Those are My Basic Tips for Drawing Portraits

Much more could be said, and I encourage you to study the human face and head as much as possible. Have fun as you try your hand at this very enjoyable subject matter!

Stay sharp,

John Middick

These five steps are actually good steps for any subject from still life to complex landscapes.

About John Middick

John is the creator and host of the Sharpened Artist Podcast, the weekly podcast for colored pencil artists.

The podcast was created in 2015 and John says his primary focus was offering encouragement to fellow artists. He accomplishes that goal by not only sharing tips and techniques for drawing, but by interviewing other colored pencil artists. Giving them a chance to be heard and encouraged.

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  1. Robert Williams

    Why can’t we study skin toned colors of Black women and men? I have spent hours of disappointment trying to locate tutorials in this regard. Again I ask why! I have even proposed paying someone from my own pocket.

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